Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Racists, Kunal Basu.

Kunal Basu’s third novel, Racists (2006) is an interesting read. Set in the middle of the nineteenth century, it concerns itself with the conflict between two scientists, Samuel Bates and Jean-Loius Belavoix. (Both are fictional). Bates is the creator of the Chain of Races theory: this propounds that the Black race is separate and inferior to the White Race. They resemble, but are as different as Zebra (wild and African) and Horse (civilised and European). Following a disagreement in Florence, in front of the Italian Academy of Science, Bates and Belavoix set up the “Ultimate Experiment” by which a Black Boy and a White Girl will be placed in the care of a mute nurse on a deserted island, Arlinda. As a craniologist, Bates believes that the White Girl (the lowest of her race…as a female) will prove superior to the Black Boy (the highest of his race…as a male). (The neat, ironical check to this belief is that Bates is reliant on the monetary power of his wife, a Quaker philanthropist, who wishes to prove that there is no racial difference and thus find a scientific basis for attacking world slavery). The novel opens in 1855 with the babies being delivered to the island on The Rainbow: a symbolic touch that represents what is at stake: the bridge between God’s order and mankind’s.

Racists is written in a lively style. It balances argument and description well, never plunging too deep into racial theory, nor falling into luxuriant travel narrative. In Bates and Belavoix, Basu creates two grand and appalling, Dickensian caricatures. Historically, the novel works successfully within basic background details. In the 1850s-60s, polygenist arguments were popular. And Bates is a forerunner of James Hunt, a craniologist who believed that racial differences were fixed. There are, however, some flaws in the historical base of the novel. The experiment is designed to run from 1855-1867, 12 years, until the children approach puberty. The main part of the novel terminates around 1861 and closes with Bates arguing-off-the-cuff against Darwin’s new theory. By that date, Darwin’s theory in The Origins of Species (1859) had been fully propounded and attacked. It would hardly have been a surprise to Bates. The novel also closes with a retrospective statement by Quartley, Bates’s assistant, that alludes to the American Civil War: “The battle to raise the races together…was to start soon in America…Abolition took just fiver years to win.” From a post 1865 date, Quartley asserts that Darwin finished off “racial science” and it took decades for it to re-emerge. Actually, that was not so. Darwinism did not destroy “racial science” and in an editorial to the Eyre controversy in 1865-66, The Morning Herald followed popular public opinion when it wrote: ‘“Am I not a man and brother?” would now be answered with some hesitation by many…who regard the blacks as an inferior race.’ A point that Ruskin, Kingsley, Dickens and Tennyson supported. Also, rather puzzling is a belief (by the author) that it would have been difficult to return the Black boy to England (after the experiment) except as a house-boy, as if by there had been no development in the lives and minds of Black people since the 1800s: one reason for the author’s pragmatical plotting in “Middle Passage”.

If there is a literary failing to Racists, then that is connected to the characterisation of the children in the experiment. They never become much more than feral beings in the eye of the reader. So, when the novel begins to work through sympathy for the children’s plight it is not particularly convincing. There is no real identification between child and reader. At the best, a reader can bring a humanitarian objection to the experiment, though such aligns the reader with the flimsy socialite views of Louisa Bates and Esther Graham. Perhaps, Basu assumes that a reader will bring an instinctive modern objection to the experiment and always be on the children’s side. If so, he is mistaken for a modern reader follows the fictional reality that the author presents.

Ultimately, though, Racists is a thought-provoking and intelligent novel.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tracing Paradise, Dawn Potter's Milton.

Tracing Paradise, Two Years in Harmony with John Milton is a book with an amusingly contradictory title. It sounds like Dawn Potter intends to write an unqualified tribute to Milton. Page 1 reveals otherwise: Harmony is a cacophonous place in Maine, and Dawn Potter has anything but undying love for the author of Paradise Lost.

The background to the book is quite mind-blowing: one day, having decided that she had never liked Milton, Dawn Potter sat down to write out the whole of Milton’s epic. (She didn’t actually write the book out, she typed, but that in itself borders, as she suggests herself, on lunacy). As a “rickety and ramshackle reader”, following Woolf’s “common reader”, with no specific academic training relating to Milton, Tracing Paradise looks at the flaws and successes of Milton’s poetry: as it appears to a modern, down-to-earth, non-Protestant female mind. In other words, the book questions Milton’s misogynistic, religious, heavenly and out-of-date world view. As a Miltonist, I found Dawn Cooper's struggle with Milton fascinating. It was refreshing to hear a voice neither singing hymns to the master nor damning him unreservedly, but asking simple questions as she wrestled with angels. There are parts of Paradise Lost, such as its patriarchy, that continually trouble me.

The result is an oddly beautiful book. The uncompromising nature of Milton makes him make enemies even today. His religion is unpalatable to some. His blank verse is incomprehensible to others. He is a master (that is the right word) who provokes antagonism. At times, Dawn Potter’s views are encouraging just by their directness. Yes, Paradise with its easy gardening bears no resemblance to a hard farming life in Maine. There is something lethargic about Milton’s imagination at times. Equally, how valid are the continuous parallels between Maine and Paradise Lost? Why should there be any similarity? Dawn Potter lives in a fallen world where life does not follow the music of the spheres.

Tracing Paradise is a divided experience for anyone who has read Milton in depth. Dawn Potter misses much in the poetry. But then, no more than many worthy tomes published recently to celebrate the 400 years since his birth. Her readings are general, chunks of blank verse hang like unEdenic slabs of meat inside the book to illustrate simple points. There is little close reading. At the same time, Dawn Potter’s prose is graceful and full of vivid imagery and human detail. Her poetic nature shines out continuously. She writes evocatively of the poet’s craft and the work of life:

“Imagination is a poet’s lead rope, yanking us by the nose into collision with words, thoughts, sounds.”

“I have learnt, for instance, that my life is not my own: I am the handmaid of my children; I minister to their demands; I deny my yearnings in service to theirs.”

As a meditation on life and imagery, Tracing Paradise is a wonderful common book. Each chapter asks for a cup of coffee and a warm fire late at night, with a moon through the window, and hoar-frost on the glass. As a study of Milton, the book is barely a primer. Ultimately, however, the book is worth buying and reading and savouring because of its human intelligence. I think I might still prefer to sit and talk with Raphael, which could be a character flaw, but Dawn Potter, I have to admit, is the better talker and observer. It is a long time since I looked forward to reading a chapter a night, just to feel the pleasure of words.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield.

NB recent post, 26/11/2015.

The term “gay”draws a number of elements around it: the homosexual, the homoerotic and the homosocial. It is not a term used easily. The matter isn’t helped much by using the term poet of a “gay sensibility”. That too often implies a poet who is gay, but writes about other things such that gay aspects appear here and there. The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (1987) was a curious mish-mash, not only in terms of “gay” but also in terms of poetry: it included a lot of verse-and-worse. Heavily featured poets included the Classical, Catullus, Strato, Martial and Meleager, the pseudo-classical, Cavafy, and Shakespeare and Barnfield.

To include 12 sonnets by Barnfield lifted an almost unknown poet into a major Classical league. It has always puzzled me if this was justified. Is the poetry of Barnfield so important in the history of “gay” poetries?

Richard Barnfield was born in 1574. He was in every way a contemporary of Shakespeare. Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) mixed Virgil and Spenser to tell of a relationship between Ganymede and Daphnis. It was typical Renaissance pastoral with a male-male relationship at the core, following the precedent set by Virgil, Bion and Theocritus. A few months later than this work, Barnfield published Cynthia (1595), a volume that extended the theme of The Affectionate Shepherd via twenty sonnets. This is the sonnet sequence filtered out by The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.

Sonnet 1 of Barnfield’s sequence is dedicated to Beauty, which enters the poet’s heart; like a thief, to steal his calm. Sonnet 2 is an extended conceit in which Beauty and Majesty yield to Virtue in Love’s battlefield. The battlefield in Sonnet 3 is extended to Philosophy; and the conclusion is that the greatest good is the Beloved’s “faire eye”. The sequence seems to be building towards the relationship of Love and Light…Spenserian Neo-Platonism…but Sonnet 4 only produces a well-worn sonnet idea: Ganymede’s eyes are like stars, he is the Sun, and his absence brings darkness to the poet. Sonnet 5 does not fair much better in terms of originality. A comparison between Achilles-War and Ganymede-Love is tediously worked through to an obvious conclusion. Very little of this appears in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (though 1 and 4 appear). Sonnets 6-8 are represented however as worthy of attention. And these are stronger. Suddenly, there is a progression from distant worshipping to homoerotic desire. Daphnis/Barnfield now longs to be kissed by “sweet coral lips”, to be a pillow to receive his lover’s kisses, and he delights, with an echo of Spenser, in his lover swimming like a “silver swan” in the Thames. It is nice poeticising. Sonnet 9 is a cooling down of the erotic tone, the equivalent of a cold shower for the hopefully (but unlikely) aroused reader. The history of Ganymede is revealed— he is born from Diana’s blood, that is to say, he is Chaste.Sonnets 10-12, also anthologised, work from chastity to revelation to admiration. Ganymede discovers that Daphnis loves him. The final poems run variations on what has gone before, slowly burying emotion with classical wit and allusions. Sonnet 17 advances the intimate connection between body and poetry:

Cherry lipped Adonis in his snow shape
Might not compare with his pure ivory white,
On whose fair front a poet might write
(XVII, 1-3).

In the ultimate poem, like a true Christian Neo-Platonist, Barnfield begins to place more hope in “favour from that heavenly grace”, but there is none of the genuine emotional torture heard in the sonnets of Michelangelo as he is torn between homoerotic earthly desire and the chaste love of God.

The sonnets of Richard Barnfield have a curiosity value, a place in the history of "gay" poetry, but little more. They never touch the homosexual, are fingered by the erotic, and fail to embrace the homosocial, to portray a relationship between two men with anything approaching depth and vision

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jericho Brown and James Allen Hall.

Gay men are gay because they have been feminized by over-contact with the mother. This prevailing piece of Oedipal wisdom has always seemed ignorant to me. More to the point, it seemed to be exactly the explanation that patriarchy would produce: Why not make a hatred of women into the cause and justification for hating gay men, women-men? At the same time, however, I was aware of the power exerted by mothers in gay poets’ lives…but in a positive way…their openness to the Jungian Anima, the Feminine Principle. The binding power of the Mother is something fully expressed by Robert Duncan when he wrote “My mother would be a falconress,/And I her gay falcon treading her wrist…" (Bending the Bow, p.52).

Interestingly, Issue 22 of Boxcar Poetry Review, includes a fascinating discussion between Jericho Brown and James Hall about the personal origins of their poetry. It is a discussion in which the Mother, in one form or another, looms.

James Allen opens their dialogue with a reference to Mark Doty on the dangers of revising the past from the present. (A good point for writers, since there is nothing more futile than trying to revise what is enmeshed in the past with a view from the present. It is the mistake of Orpheus: do not try to turn back. Let the past follow the present until it becomes part of the present). And Jericho Brown responds with a similar point of reference. (Not surprising, since both poets were mentored by Mark Doty as writing students). For them both, Mark Doty appears as a matrix, a mother to their work, what the alchemist’s term the prima materia.

As the dialogue progresses, Jericho Brown suggests that poetry/writing is a conversation. That does not, on the surface, seem much like a definition for poetry. But as Nor Hall, the author of the perceptive The Moon and the Virgin, a study of the Mother and poetics, would say, those poets who are bound to the mother are also bound to the roots and origins of words, the mother-language of creativity. A conversation is vers, a turning, literally, a turning around: it is vers libre in which the placement of words and line-breaks/turns give structure to speech. There is something quite intimate and fitting about how James Hall recounts the following:

“I remember late nights with you on the phone as we played with line breaks of our poems…”

The phone conversation has conversation as its subject. In the mothering night, both poets play the Mother’s games.

Following the paradigm of Toni Wolff in Structural Forms of the Feminine Psyche (1956), Nor Hall develops a four-fold view of the Anima. She is Amazon, Medial, Mother and Hetaira: virgin, sibyl, creator and wife. For James Hall, in Now You're the Enemy, the Mother is the Dark Mother, the witch-mother:

“My mother has struggled with depression, adultery, and suicide for most of her adult life.”

She is a haunted space into which his book of poems allows an undesired entry. He expresses a wish to close that door, to write free of the mother. He doesn’t explain what that would be like. H.D., knowing the opposite pole to the Dark Mother, the hetaira, would describe it as a way of self-containment, of divorce from any relationship, of a wish to “melt down/integrate” in the crucible of the imagination (Trilogy).

The Mother does not appear explicitly, during the interview, in Jericho Brown’s world. It is the Father that raises his head…and hand. But she is subtly present in two major parts of the dialogue. Firstly, she appears when Jericho Brown discusses his poem “Rick” (a poem in reply to Rick Barot). A close friend suggested that “Rick” should not be included in Please because it was too “gossipy” (for a poem about inter-racial relationships?) Jericho Brown defends his decision, during the dialogue, by suggesting its seriousness, the fact that Rick Barot loved its “metaphors”. In fact, “Rick” is one of the best poems in Please, not at all superficial, for gossiping is a vital aspect of the Mother. Gossip is derived from the roots, god and sybbe, and implies truthful speaking, a medial voice. The mediatorial aspect of the Mother comes in many guises. In ancient Greece, she would have been the gossiping sibyl of Apollo. In Tudor times, she was the truth-telling prophetess, such as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. In the seventeenth century, she became the unbridled woman, the Puritan woman testifying to God. Today, she is the Diva, the voice that transmits emotional truths and stands between the world of patriarchy and matriachy. This quality is beautifully realised by Jericho Brown whilst discussing the divas within Please:

“Divas are also quite unapologetically talented...They mean for their very presence to make people cry, just as the poet must mean for his or her poems to make readers fully feel an emotion."

That is a wonderful example of the Mother speaking from within the man— a revelation of the alignment between the Diva and the gay poet who is open to the liberating voice of his Anima. Jericho Brown closes the interview by recognising the medial nature of his next manuscript and describes his present life as

“…the Wood Between the Worlds”…

In other words a world that saps the power of the witch-mother (The White Witch in Narnia) yet advances passivity and waiting. This implies, as with James Hall, a future shifting within the Mother paradigm. Hopefully, this will be towards the pole of the Amazon, ARTemis, a state that allows the self to support, yet stand-back from creation, to explore points of involvement in life and art.

Do read…it is a fascinating dialogue!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Virtual Friends.

Facebook: Dante.

Does new technology have a positive or negative influence on connections in life? That is an interesting question. I have more than a few reservations when I see people umbilically connected to their iPods or absorbed in texting to the point that they are unaware of the world around them. The pull of the virtual world is considerable… In August, the Catholic Church initiated a powerful attack on virtual social networking. Archbishop Vincent Nichols attacked what he termed “transient relationships” created by social network sites. His term “transient” is an interesting metaphor: it suggests impermanence, like migrant, a coming and going, here today and gone tomorrow. To some extent, I can align myself with his view. I completely fail to understand how a Facebook devotee might have 1000 friends plus. What purpose do so many “friends” serve? Such debases the term “friend”. It seems to reflect modern promiscuity—the more that merrier—and quantity rather that quality. And that is probably the hidden fear behind the Church’s attack. Promiscuous friendships like sexual relationships undermine the family core so valued by religious groups. That does, however, beg a question: does the family core constitute a protective ands supportive model anymore? Is social networking breaking down the family or is it the failure of the family that makes social networking both inviting and necessary?

Archbishop Nichols singled out Facebook and MySpace as the new anti-social demons. Both are disturbing metaphors. Facebook by its very name suggests its superficiality: let’s be faces to each another. And MySpace is filled with egotistic echoes…my territory…it sounds so very important, yet it about at significant as a Star Spangled Banner on the Moon. Do the countless number of stars in deepest space care at all? Superficiality and egotism certainly play their parts on Facebook and MySpace. But surely, there is another side to virtual connections.

“Transience” does not bother me that much. Human encounters are “transient”. The Thou comes and goes. The It takes over. Here, the Church, appears to have the wrong word as its enemy. What fascinates in the world of blogging—to move beyond Facebook and MySpace and Twittering—is the unexpected encounters, the meetings with people that could not happen in real life. And these are often significant encounters! Certainly, in the time I have blogged I have encountered people who have made my life more purposeful. What Archbishop Nicholls has not addressed is the fact that the virtual world can bring new qualities into people’s lives. If life is restricted to the house or street or village in which a person lives, which was once the case in the past, the result is a limited existence. Far from undermining human conversation, the virtual world offers new possibilities: it allows individuals to seek out minds like theirs.

In his essay on Friendship, Cicero offered some incisive views. Friendship was a physical entity, words shared by two people as they met face to face. But he also widened that concept—by metaphor—to suggest something more. A friend is a second-self. A friend brings light and is a reflection in a mirror. The images of Cicero would later become the world of Humanism rich in its open fields of knowledge and communication. Facebook and MySpace are shadows in a Platonic world of light, not the radiant world of human communication.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kehinde Wiley and Friendship.

Kehinde Wiley came to the public eye in 2004. His first public exhibition was at the Brooklyn Museum. Here he exhibited a series of 18 large-scale paintings and introduced what has since become a familiar way working process. For Passing/Posing, young black males were asked to view copies of European portraits, select their favourite, then model the pose. From photographs, Kehinde Wiley then created canvasses which projected urban images into historical masterpieces. In essence, Kehinde Wiley’s art is an art of transgression, one that re-colonises space for the Black male image.

This method has had its critics. The methodology has been seen as a trick, nothing more. And the paintings have been describes as stiff and lacking expressive brushwork. In recent exhibitions, however, the play between artist and model, has brought new depths to the paintings. And the imagery has become less about urban hip-hop as complex questions of identity. The trick has revealed an artist who is a subtle trickster, a master of double imagery. In the Down exhibition of 2008, new resonances appeared as images from modern European sculpture were converted into contemporary images. Not only did male to male transmutations take place, but works figuring females were transformed into male forms. This crossing of gender, placing images at the crossroads, was done with skill and wit. Also new was the way in which the large-scale paintings spoke to one another, creating a hidden text about the visual image and musical image, about the relationship between sound, sight and death.

Curiously, The World Stage Africa, Lagos-Dakar, has been viewed as something different in the art of Kehinde Wiley. Critics have spoken of this as authentic, arguing that a Renaissance occurs because the artist has returned to origins and the Black African male offers a palette that is rich in tones: such deepens the portraiture element of Kehinde Wiley’s work. Such is nonsense. All that has happened in The World Stage Africa is that critics have become able to see the transmutations. The changes across gender and culture are clear. The artist references them, as in Dogon Couple where the Male-Female cosmic duality is replaced by a Male-Male image. And what is interesting is that Kehinde Wiley stays away from any sentimentalisation of Africa: his male figures wear street gear, not the ethnic tribal costumes so idolised by Western society (though, of course, street wear has its own tribal connections). The Africa paintings are in no way a departure from what has gone previously. They are a perfecting of the method.

In the latest work, Black Light, a series of photographs, Kehinde Wiley takes on another element of White male Western art: the photo portrait. Wonderful inversions occur as oil portrait (Van Dyck) becomes photographic portrait (Mapplethorpe/Platt-Lynes/Van Vechten) and floralisation is used to complicate the male image. Also, in Black Light two other elements collide: a wide knowledge of art history and contemporary story-telling. So, in one photograph, Pontormo’s Two Men with a Letter by Cicero (1524), a symbol of Italian society at its height, Kehinde Wiley re-creates this double masterpiece. In the Pontormo, the two men are reflections of one another. They visually re-create the Humanistic ideal of two in one, of perfect friendship. This Neo-Platonic ideal (with its “gay” over-tones) is developed by Kehinde Wiley. The faces of his two models echo the Pontormo. But whereas Pontormo uses the letter (and Cicero’s text) as a gloss, Kehinde Wiley forces it upon the viewing eye. The letter becomes a symbol of brotherhood and solidarity. The subtle tones of Pontormo are transformed into a dazzling ground of blood-red flowers. Kehinde Wiley has been an outspoken critic of how the urban musical image has lost its connection to messages…the first breakthrough hip-hop track was The Message…and the finger of Kehinde Wiley’s first figure, as in the Pontormo, points to the rubric, the message:

“When a person thinks of a true friend, he sees a reflection in the mirror. Even an absent friend is always present in the mind of a friend.”
Cicero, Laelius.

In the later works of Kehinde Wiley, he literally translates “diaspora”. His work is a spilling of seed, of multiple meanings that enrich the mind with intellectual and erotic associations.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Glass Bead Game

Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game must rank as one of the greatest hermetic novels of the past century. In 1936, Thomas Mann lightly tripped his view of Hermes across the Confessions of Felix Krull. Hesse’s Hermes seems to move on from the world of Mann, though the Hermes of The Glass Bead Game is far more sombre. The novel is offered as a biography of Joseph Knecht, a legendary figure in the mysterious world of The Game. But what emerges, paradoxically, as the novel focuses on the life of Knecht, is an abstract history of intellect. The novel commences properly with an academic exercise in which Knecht has to write an “imaginary” biography…a recapitulation of a past life. And this quest for life and truth—what a life is true to and how a life is true—are major themes within the novel.

The essence of the novel is caught in one beautiful paragraph:

He [Knecht] had forgotten the dream by the time he awoke. But later, during a morning walk, the Master asked him whether he had dreamt, and it seemed to him that he must have had an unpleasant experience in his dreams. He thought, recovered the dream, and told it, and was astonished at how innocuous it sounded. The Master listened closely.
“Should we be mindful of dreams?” Joseph asked. “Can we interpret them?”
The Master looked into his eyes and said tersely: “We should be mindful of everything, for we can interpret everything.”

In those words, The Master of Music conjures a whole lost way of thought… the musical dance of words, poetry, total interpretation and interpolation! Phew! Just as Hermes led the Graces of Music, Dance and Poetry, Chastity, Beauty and Passion in the direction of significance and transformation...

Monday, August 31, 2009

Equal to the Earth: Jee Leong Koh: Mermen.

In 1979, Simon Lowy’s Melusine and the Nigredo (Carcanet) achieved the annual London Poetry Society award. Heralded for its wit and originality, the volume was the work of an author who was primarily an alchemist. Lowy was announced by Carcanet as a poet “far from the mainstream of contemporary verse.” Melusine and the Nigredo was published at a time when UK poetry was expanding and Lowy was one of the many new poets on Carcanet’s expansive list. But in 1985, serious critical revisions began and Lowy was one of a number of poets singled out by Martin Booth, in British Poetry from 1964 to 1984 (1985), as an example of the lunatic poets who were technically weak, “pretentious and pompous” (p.167). Booth was scathing in his attack on Michael Schmidt, as director of Carcanet, for diluting the poetry world by publishing bad poetry by one-hit wonders, such as Lowy. In truth, Michael Schmidt rejected further work by Lowy because it did not meet the standard of Melusine and the Nigredo. Far from being slack, as alleged by Booth, he was prepared to take a risk (with alchemical poetry) then recognise its distinct limitations.

Hermetic poetry requires a fine balance and a recognition of one simple principle: poetry comes before alchemy. Or to put that another way, if a writer is going to traffic in deep imagery, then put the muse before the mystery. When mystery precedes the muse, poetry becomes more of a riddle than an experience. This is a problem with HD and Yeats, occasionally, Robert Duncan and Blake more frequently. And when the mystical comes without the muse, then that produces much of the bullshit that passes as poetry in occult circles.

Comparing Simon Lowy and Jee Leong Koh is interesting. Both are hermetic poets, but in very different ways. Lowy, at his best, is a poet of wit and modern, metaphysical imagery. At his worst, he writes a poetry that reads like a archaic, medieval texts. The imagery is stereotypical and forced, only making sense if you have access to alchemical tracts. The poetry is filtered through an alchemical net. Here is “Melusine 6”:

I was mermaid at the Beermaid
And Barman (for short the Barleyman)
I was reckless and terribly young
My litany was drowning men
My elegy their evensong, ah,
But my eyes were agate green
Like pools of paler rain upon
The village green, all with apple
Trees abound, in which
The mermaid Melusine swims
Around, apart and free, as
Mermaids have a mind to do
When they swim the lazuli,
& It goes swimmingly.

(MATN, p.41).

Lowy is describing the classical, alchemical mermaid who swims in the subconscious sea within everyone and brings the ego to the rocks of destruction. If alchemy is turned upon alchemy, well, this is nigredo poetry, dull and dead, heavy as Saturn, and in need of the kiss of life.

How different is the poetry of Jee Leong Koh: hermeticism swims into the poem as an enriching incidental. One major sequence in Equal to the Earth is titled “Mermen”. In four allusive sonnets (14 line poems without rhyme), Jee Leong Koh picks up the sonnet as Robert Lowell did: as a way of loosening up to life, creating notebook perceptions, allowing images to drift with tides and see where they might go. In Part 1, the “I” is a casual walker by a river. He sees a “young man” in a pastoral landscape. The “I” observes, then sees a merman slip back into the water. The two observations mime how the virtual and the real coincide in the mind of the poet: the poet hermeticises, transforms daily perception. In Part 2, a “niece” speaks. This time, the speaker listens to sexual encounters, which she half perceives. It is a world where men are “wrecked” by the male melusine/merman. It ends ironically, as the young girl renounces fictional “bedtime stories” for reality, unaware that the reality she prizes is a fiction. Part 3 turns the kaleidoscope again, a (fish)wife speaks. And in the final part, a scientist narrates. In a mystical encounter, the “amateur ichthyologist” enters a ring of mermen: the world of facts merges with myth. The whole sequence explores eroticism…images that turn in the tide…and as an alchemist of images, Jee leong Koh shows the flotsam and jetsam of the mind with original imagery:

You sprawl in bed as on a lightbox, each muscle,
delicate as scales, each gap a gasping gill.

(ETTE, p,71).

Poetical hermeticism!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Equal to the Earth: Jee Leong Koh: Androgyne.

It is true, Hermeticists see Hermeticism everywhere. There is an inbuilt bias to over-read. If Blake saw the Universe in a grain of sand, the Hermeticist finds Hermes in every light particle. Even so, as in the poetry of Thom Gunn, Hermetical ideas exist throughout Equal to the Earth, as a meaningful under-current.

I have read quite a few interpretations and responses to “Brother”, one of Jee Leong Koh’s finest lyrical poems in Equal to the Earth. The latest interpretation (from a radio interview) places the poem in the context of Darwinism. All life originated in the sea and the sea provides the origins of this poem. Interesting, but I don’t think so. Darwin’s evolutionary theory does not walk with Plato! Pope heralded the glories of Newton. Jee Leong Koh doesn’t view Darwin with the same enthusiasm.

“Brother” begins in the womb. Two brothers are given life. The “ultrasound”, says the speaker, “found us as one.” The act of creation is “monozygotic”, one divides into two. As in the Platonic androgyne myth, birth brings a split and wholeness is lost, separation is formed. The result is a kind of crisis (a psychic link actually felt by identical twins) in which early life re-lives the moment of cutting. Childish games, like hide-and-seek, mime the psychic reality and appear as anxiety: childhood is a continual search for the lost self, the lost beloved. Memories of a “cracked canoe” remember the fracture of birth, the “beak” that knotted the cord of life after hatching. From the inner loss rises an outer desire for the Other, the beloved made in the image of the lover. This is the basis of Eros, gay sexuality, “wet dreams of touching another man”.

At the close of the poem, there is a startling shift: first nature, “a turtle washed ashore; then art, “a lacquered carapace”. Through life and art, the poet seeks “absences” that recall total presence, sexual integration, two bodies as one.

Alchemically, following Jung, out of the feminine Anima, the matrix, the mothering sea, the masculine Animus is born. The Animus yearns for its opposite, not the heterosexual Anima, but another Animus, like itself, that is intimately connected to the Anima. “Brother”, by recasting the androgyne myth, expresses a desire for a brother…and brotherhood.

“Brother” is an exquisite re-working of alchemical myth, not in stereotyped alchemical images, but in fresh images from the subconscious waters of poetry.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Equal to the Earth: Jee Leong Koh: Sea.

Jee Leong Koh’s new book of poetry from Bench Press is introduced to the reader/buyer (hopefully) by an appropriate image. The photograph by Kent Mercurio (a coincidental hermetical name) shows a shoreline, the solidity of matter, and beyond this the sea caught in a swathe of light.

Equal to the Earth is a compelling new volume of poems. It investigates with wit and intelligence questions about identity and how an individual finds his or her place upon Earth, how an outsider, oblique to the terrifying norm of life, can become equal. Throughout the collection, the sea surges as an image of the subconscious and the eternal.

As in alchemy, the sea represents the solutio. In the words of Dorn:

Ut per solutionem corpora solvuntur, ita per cognitionem resolvuntur philosophorum dubia.”

“As bodies are dissolved through the sea, so philosophical doubt is resolved through thought.”

The sea engulfs and protects. In the embryonic sea, identity and yearning are born...tides of thought from that moment are set in motion that demand a response… time past and time future meet in the sea.

At the close of Equal to the Earth, Jee Leong Koh writes:

The beach, burning up the air, was empty,
sucked me to it,
to the body
and I entered it. I opened my eyes
and I knew that something that rises and flies
from the Ocean had penetrated me.
(“Fire Island, ETTE. p.91).

What a revelation to have on Fire Island., to “enter” and be “penetrated”, to experience totality, for a moment.

Equal to the Earth is characterised by enquiry, technical curiosity and emotional questioning. It is enriching to see a poet write as he wishes to write, outside sterile debates about what makes a modern poet. The post-post modern poet, for Jee leong Koh, is a human being, not a credo.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Philip Glass: Appomattox

Philip Glass? Minimalist! The word association is quick and easy, and yet, far from correct. The music of Glass varies across many forms: film, concerto, solo piano, string quartet, symphony, opera, popular song. And there are great differences within each of these, so Akhenaten differs from Einstein on the Beach, Mishima from Anima Mundi, “Streets of Berlin” (Bent) from “Freezing” (Liquid Days). The term Minimalist is reductive, often failing to acknowledge the macrocosmic scope of Glass’s music.

Last week, Leeds saw the European premier of Glass’s latest opera, Appomattox, a production that raised some interesting questions about interpretations of Glass. The scale of Glass’s music is most obvious within his operas: expansive sets, themes, cadences and singers. When Appomattox received its world premiere in San Francisco (2007), the opera was true to form: imposing. The Leeds version, staged at the Carriageworks, occurred on a smaller stage, yet the performance still resonated. Also, the Leeds version, sung by Leeds Youth Opera, was placed in the hands of young singers and actors. This could have been uncomfortable: weighty roles hung on thin frames to the point of collapse. Yet, this was not at all what happened. In the hands and voices of younger performers, Appomattox achieved an unexpected poignancy and vulnerability: the soldiers who died in the American Civil War… as in wars since, were young men…and the women who suffered were young too. The Leeds Appomattox wasn’t Glass in Lilliput, rather a revealing of the gap between grand ideas, such as freedom, that cause war, and the humbling pains endured by those who fight.

The Leeds Evening News reviewed Appomattox in a predictable manner. It celebrated the achievements of Leeds Youth Opera whilst finding the opera “musically uninteresting”. That verdict sells both Glass and the Youth Opera short. If the reviewer has listened to the score, with all its shifts and echoes, and known the Glass repertoire, he would have had a better idea of what this young opera group in fact achieved. Appomattox took a grand historical sweep from the ending of the American Civil War, through the Civil Rights Movement, into the current political world of Barack Obama. The Glass score skilfully changed with history, creating the ground for inventive staging. The opening, serene in sound, simple in mood, with little action beyond female figures wandering in and out of silent male bodies, had the depth of Greek Tragedy. The moment when Lee and Grant exchanged correspondence, in search of peace, using simple musical idioms to carry humility and emotion, was thrilling. The music performed as well as the actor-singers. The music throughout had a chameleon quality to it, absorbing popular song ("Tenting") and Biblical phraseology "(Psalm 47"), finding the right style for the right moment. There was one chilling moment, when the electrocution of the racist Edgar Ray Killen, exploded with the rasping, devilish percussion of “Moloch”, from Hydrogen Jukebox.

The European premier of Appomattox wasn’t perfect: there were occasional moments when singing and orchestration were not synchronised. But the evening was a perfect example of what art is about: invention, expression, and expansion. The orchestra brought a demanding score to life, with some sterling performances from the percussion and keyboard section: Linda Hinchliffe. Jonathan Wilby brought depth and statesmanship to Ulyssees Grant. Joe Thompson showed great stage presence, with an ability to sing and act in unison—to communicate cynicism and warmth. It was exciting to see such sparkle, also to see such commitment and challenge from a whole company. In truth, Leeds Youth Opera did justice to an extremely interesting musical score, and showed themselves equal to the piece. Bravo! Appomattox, with its detailed attention to history, represents American opera at its height; Leeds Youth Opera , with their enthusiasm, music at its best.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chrestomathy, concluded.


For Reginald Shepherd, like a number of significant modern poets, the poet lives in relation to myth. This relationship might be intimate, as in the case of HD, and worn like a chiton. It might be an elaboration of modern life as with Duncan. Mythology might run under the poet’s creative thinking, like veins of coal, in the work of Ted Hughes. It might become a mode of transformation…in Gunn and Doty. In Orpheus and the Bronx, Shepherd troubles over this relationship, well aware of the mythologizing instinct in his own verse. Living out myths is “like wearing clothing that doesn’t fit properly.” Putting on the robes of high Western culture is fitting and awkward. In what sense? In a tragic mode? Like Macbeth? A troubled kingship?


Fata Morgana includes a work that is very important within the corpus of Shepherd’s work: “Some Kind of Osiris”. Even the title acknowledges the uncertainty with which Shepherd wears this myth. “Some Kind of”. There is hesitancy, a mantle passed on. But from whom?


To read it is to encounter holes.

“Green calls green into being/speaking my skin into colour,”
The abstract underpins specific greens…especially in the case of Death, for Green was the Egyptian colour of Death— linked to the mummified flesh of Osiris.

Echoing Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and their belief in the continuity between Death and Life, Shepherd’s poem relates the world of “beetles and dung” (the Egyptian scarab that rolls light) with “smell of basil”.
“The crops will be thick in my death year” wrote Pound. Life ascends from Xthonic forces.

But this is hard “Without Wings”… an allusion to Laurie Lamon brings what into the chrestomathy? A sense of lyric and the elemental?

This Osiris is “less a person/than a place” locution is bound with locus, speech with place. When Whitman wrote his great “Scented Herbage of my Breast”, he did so after studying an image of Osiris. He was struck by the hermetical image of a dead body sprouting plant life. And “less a person than a place”, Whitman’s body of song raised leaves of grass, poetic life turning death into exhilaration.

The body of the poet was the body of America.

In “Some Kind of Osiris”, Reginald Shepherd is loosely mummy-bound (unlike Yeats). No set hermetical path will guide him into occult wisdom...the path of Hermes is wound out in the poem.


Like Delany, writing in the erotic wasteland between Death and Life, Reginald Shepherd tries on myths for size in many of his poems, seeing where mouthing/muthos will lead…what mystery might be sucked in the darkness of language.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chrestomathy, continued...


In his “Notes Towards Beauty”, Reginald Shepherd writes:

“I have quoted and cited, referred and alluded, but I am still no prophet. What do I believe—and which I, and at what time? Perhaps this near-chrestomathy is evidence, however circumstantial, that beauty is not merely personal or idiosyncratic.”

A “near-crestomathy”. What is that? It would seem that Beauty (in its various definitions) does not give “useful” readings that aid “learning”. Beauty, for Shepherd, allows a sense of absoluteness. Historical writings suggest that is not merely personal or relative…yet it is does not become a concept that is entirely useful for the human mind. Beauty is useless and good for nothing except seduction, for “getting laid”...outside the realm of education.


Digging through language in Passages 15/Spelling, Duncan links the Chi-rho symbol of Greek scribes with the poet’s task. He links chi-ro-eston, the “useful” mark placed alongside any important passage with the chrestomathy of his own Passages. Spelling chrestomathy as Xrestomathy, he also draws in the spiritual, the chi-ro that symbolises Christ/Xristos. Locked within chrestomathy is the Spirit, the X of Plato that represented the World Soul. The poet who spells the world through language as he or she understands it is bound to cast spells, to hermetically re-create.


Poetry, like science fiction, is connected to marginal worlds, says Shepherd in acknowledging his affinity with Delany. The poet is a liminal being who lives in margins, marking the body of other works with the “useful” sign and from this creating a chrestomathy, a body of work that is his own. In this sense, the chrestomathic poet is Hermetical, a guide among the souls of the dead, a wanderer in the realms of Osiris, the Xthonic darkness from which seeds of love erupt. This is the orgasm sought by the true poet, the re-making of the body of language in all its stickiness, its adhesion.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A chrestomathy for Reginald Shepherd.


Our modern culture, with its acceptance if not worship of fracture, recreates itself through predictable metaphors. Archipelago remains a key word in the Science of Evolution, Diaspora a major word within the Social Sciences. In Science Fiction, the glittering word is chrestomathy.

A chrestomathy of Ray Bradbury.
A chrestomathy of Samuel R Delany.


Reginald’s Shepherds Orpheus in the Bronx includes a “formal hommage” to Delany. In method and content, “Shadows and Light Moving on Water” returns to Delany’s essays, “Shadows” and “Shadow and Ash”. It is an experiment in a new mode…


Page 132 explains the boundaries of the words chrestomathy. Greek: “Useful”+”To learn”. A “selection of passages” gathered to help learning. The term implies a scattering of thoughts and a gathering together. That view of criticism grows out of Pound at the turn of the last century: “I gather the limbs of Osiris”. (TO BE RETURNED TO). Chrestomathy implies a different view of critical methodology: a sort of connected looseness. Chrestomathy allows spaces to exist, does not aim for a total, totalitarian and comprehensive criticism. In a way, a chrestomathy says “Here is my way, what I have learnt”. The body has holes…I recover what I can from experience to bring spirit to life. The Afterlife of the text!


The most interesting criticism is that which show its holes. The least interesting is that which hides its workings and merely relies on expert statements for validation. A chrestomathy asks that the reader validate the notes…think them through; not surprising, then, that Reginald Shepherd would take this route. It is criticism as process.


“A selection of passages”. That phrase (quoted by Reginald Shepherd) must have resonated for him for The Master of Chrestomathy in the field of poetics is Duncan…his open poem of life created through his fear of closure and death…is PASSAGES, “Tribal Memories” to “Whose”. The lover is always in love with death. Isis and Osiris unite in the Afterlife, a place in which Truth and Justice are images of criticism. (Not Beauty?)


13. “A primary question in all Delany’s work: does one impose form on experience or does one recognise form in and coax form out of experience?” As Reginald Shepherd writes, criticism is formed out of experience…of life…of reading.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The new edition of Thom Gunn.

The new edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry has been referred to as a Selected Poems. This edition even opens its introduction with “It’s now thirty years since the first Selected Thom Gunn” which implies that this latest edition follows the first: it is a second Selected Poems. Mistake? Exaggeration? This latest offering is in no way a Selected poems. It is a “Poems Selected by”, a selection that bears all the usual idiosyncrasies of this poetry series. (The USA version of this book is responsible for this confusion. It bears the title Selected Poems and refers to Kleinzahler as the "editor". Such a description masks the personal bias in the book). Gunn, himself, did his own take on Pound, and “Hang it all, Thom Gunn,” your Pound was never my Pound. An identical problem exists in relation to Thom Gunn: Poems selected by August Kleinzahler.

The Faber poet-to-poet series has been a largely British affair. The poets read are varied, but the poets reading the poets come from the UK camp of contemporary poets. (Why Hollinghurst gets a look in is odd: when did he become a significant poet?) That Faber should choose an American poet to select Gunn indicates something of a departure and an implicit bias in what was desired by the publisher: a robust, modern, American Gunn.

Kleinzahler’s approach to Gunn is robust. His introduction, however, makes rather more sense than his selection.

In his Introduction, Kleinzahler rightly challenges the usual analysis of Gunn’s career. It was brilliant, then Gunn went to the USA, discovered gay sex and gay drugs, and went down hill from Moly; until the elegiacal strain of The Man with Night Sweats gave him fitting content and resulted in a return to form: nothing like tragic deaths to legalise gayness! Kleinzahler offers a much better reading of Gunn as a poet who continued to progress and develop. This perspective is offered as new. In essence, it comes across as “Thom Gunn, the American story”. It isn’t either of these things. Gregory Woods argued much the same a decade ago. Michael Schmidt revised the false reading of Gunn three decades ago. If there is one advantage to the revision affirmed by Kleinzahler, however, it is this: it indirectly corrects the popular, trashy views of Colm Tóibín (who has suddenly acquired gay guru status): Gunn was a poet who “pushed against his own talent”.

Gunn, in his early days, was what the publishing establishment loves, a youthful genius. He was the “discovery” dreamed by every publishing house. Unfortunately, honesty got the better of him. He admired Duncan who placed sexual integrity above the demands of editors. Gunn’s poems developed a mode of speaking that was against the shrieking confessional and against the ambiguous lyric. As if to correct this, Kleinzahler only includes two poems from Fighting Terms (1954). The energies of youth are quickly ditched.

Tóibín’s faulting of Gunn is connected to his failure to have a central “myth”. Kleinzahler almost delights in hiding the “myth” that Tóibín misses. As stated earlier, Gunn selected Pound for Faber. He knew his Pound thoroughly. And what runs through Gunn is an antidote to Pound, a belief that the gay poet has a place within the natural cosmos. The gay poet too can “Make Cosmos”. Gunn was an urban poet, but he was also a pastoral poet, a poet of nature and metamorphosis. Much of this is ignored by Kleinzahler in his selection. So, no “Allegory of the Wolf Boy”, “The Book of the Dead”, “The Garden of the Gods”, “The Messenger”, “Thomas Bewick”, “The Cherry Tree”, “Odysseus on Hermes” and “Duncan”. The whiff of Hermeticism is kept in “Rites of Passage” and in “Philemon and Baucis.” But it is preserved for other reasons. The straight-talking “Philemon and Baucis” begins with an epigram from William Carlos Williams. It comes into the picture—as Kleinzahler paints it—because it shows Gunn’s debt to the American tradition and Williams. For the “poet” reader of this edition, Gunn’s heritage is Williams, Auden, Winters, Keats and the Elizabethans. (The Elizabethans? Only an American could get away with such a meaningless term. American poets are identities whereas English poetry exists as collective abstractions. Kleinzahler quotes Gunn on this: “I want to be an Elizabethan poet” and this moment of autobiography saves a lot of detailed enquiries into what is really there in Gunn’s poetry…his voice, for a start, is often closer to Marvell than Donne). Another theme, out of Pound, that runs through Gunn relates to the qualities of love and the troubadour tradition. The intersection of the body and the spiritual is key to any reading of Gunn. Yet, vital poems that reference this tradition, “The Monster” and its aubade, “The Differences” and Cavalcanti, “Wrestling” and vision, “Troubadour”, a major poetic sequence, these spiritual poems are deselected from the corpus.

It has to be said that any short selection of a poet’s work (here, 58 from 400 poems) is bound to be partial. And readers are always going to create their own versions of a poet. This edition, however, though it provides the range of Gunn’s work from 1954-2000, which is a positive, is not really true to the real Gunn. Not only has the Hermetic Gunn been conjured away, also, the gay Gunn: Eros becomes Thanatos, sexual life is replaced by sexualised deaths. Encounter and chance are replaced by a more rational (heterosexually authored) universe. “Shit”, is taken out of context as a tribute to Rimbaud and Gunn’s love of profanity. Truthfully, it stands in homage to Gregory Woods, as Gunn, right at the end of his life, still playing with the English tradition in poetry, still responsive to the tensions between technique, voice, and dissension, What is also shamefully missing is Gunn’s reflections on the art of poetry: no “A Map of the City”, no“Expression”, no “Painting by Vuillard.” This volume should be read as response by a poet-to-a-poet, and as an intelligent poet’s posthumous understanding of a friend. It is, however, a dubious survey of Gunn and a simplification of the complex gay identity that Gunn sought through poetry.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Marechera and Beckett.

I begin to wonder about the imminent canonisation of St Dambudzo. A lot of criticism and adulation focus on the radical, the enfant terrible, the creative terrorist. Rather like Milton’s Satan, Marechera (in the growing, popular image) stands and denies his point of creation. Where was it then? Time? Place? Witnesses? He is an artist without lineage…simply original. He is. Such is an odd view. Marechera was a very well read author and all kinds of influences are present within his fiction.

In 1982, Marechera returned to Zimbabwe. The sequence of stories in Scrapiron Blues, Tony Fights Tonight, were written, so it is suspected, shortly after his return. These stories are contemporary with Throne of Bayonets, a quartet of poems mixing free-verse, with rhyme and formal stanzas. The subject matter of Throne of Bayonets is Zimbabwe—more specifically, Harare, which stands as a world-in-a-city, like London in The Wasteland— but the technique arises from Eliot and Africa’s Eliot, Okigbo. Just as the poem straddles the African-European divide, so does Tony Fights Tonight. The shadow of the African Trickster is cast like an early morning shadow. And the subject matter—Harare—is given substance through Beckett.

Tony Fights Tonight is a set of 11 short episodes. Sub-titled “Pub Stories”, these sections draw upon the pub as a setting for outrageous yarns, exactly the right place for Fred, the single-eyed Cyclopean Trickster to tell his sexual tales to the tricky Marechera-Odysseus. His carnival sexual tales are Marechera's version of the double-edged and eloquent signifying monkey. As the narrator of the series notes about Harare’s street mythology:

“There is always the touch of conmanship in the telling of them.” (TFT, p.3).

And in a line of pure Beckett:

“So much time to kill. So little time in which to kill it.” (TFT, p.2).

Structurally, Tony Fights Tonight appears like this:

1) Fred.
2) Tony and Jane
3) Tony and Jane
4) Fred
5) Jane
6) Tony
7) Fred
8) Fred (and Jill)
9) Narrator
10) Fred
11) Narrator

True to form, Marechera creates a patterned fictive fiction of stories within stories. There is an author who is narrating. Fred is part of that narration, but Fred becomes a narrator within the overall narrative. Tony and Jane are characters created by the author, but (as in Beckett) they are characters who show their strings. They are puppets to the authorial puppet-master, Lucky to Pozzo, but they fight for individuation, for creative liberation and their own rights. At the close of Tony Fights Tonight, Marechera refers to his two main characters as joined identities: “I knew Tonyjane were out there somewhere…” They have become an androgyne, two in one, yet they are bound to a verb in the plural “were”. There is always the potential for them to split and become something else. This follows Beckett very closely. “Tonyjane” are a “pseudocouple”, a joint creative fantasy, like Mercier and Camier (MAC, 1974, English translation). Marechera is writing in the world of Beckett’s Trilogy, which received a major re-print in 1979 and would have been a key text for Marechera at an important time of his life:

“I naturally though of the pseudocouple Mercier-Camier”. (Trilogy, p.272).

Characters revolve within the narrator’s head. The world and the book have fused such that they are inseparable and all they can do, the only truth they can tell relates to fictiveness. At the centre, in “What Available Reality”, the narrator/Marechera (?) raises the ultimate doubt:

“Was I myself a character in someone’s head? I resolved to get sickeningly drunk.” (TFT, p.17)

And this doubt comes after the narrator realises that Jane is a succubus of his imagination…a sexual partner for the author; alas, poor Tony!

The style of Tony Fights Tonight is Marecheran: gutsy, down-to-earth, sordid description shot through with lyricism, realism mixed with Symbolist imagery. But the framework is Beckett.

Dreams occupy a key place in Beckett. They are forbidden. Something like a fetish that must not be touched. In Mercier and Camier, the two characters have a “covenant”: “no communication of dreams on any account.” (MAC, p.61). Dreams, within Foucault’s clinical perspective, structurally tell the future and are bound to social order. They suggest a purpose in time, an aligning agent. Dreams carry a similar resonance for Jane, in Tony Fights Tonight. And the Existentialist echo recalls Beckett once more:

“There were so many queer dreams that attacked Jane from all sides. It was some how unfair. These were not her dreams. When she stopped to buy a paper, the white newsvendor’s dream hit her squarely on the jaw…Hell is other people.” (TFT, p.13).

"L'enfer, c'est les autres" says the narrator, about Jane, via a quotation from Satre. The dreams of others press on people such that individuals come to know themselves from outside. Dreams alienate…in the book (like Tony who must bear the dream of his author)…in the world, such that we have “nothing to say, no words but the words of others…” (Trilogy, p.288). No Exit from the dreams of others is the world’s nightmare. Dreams, for Jane, are a physical reality. She feels them as an unpremeditated attack. Jane walks through a Babel of dreams, not unconscious dreams, but conscious ones that seek to destroy the self. Marechera suggests that her walking among the dreams of others is a kind of border-line act, a stepping between worlds, that must be undertaken in the name of healing. An Hermetic wandering among the living dead in search of realness.

Tony Fights Tonight is a fascinating exploration of the nature of fiction and reality, a descent into the Inferno, with Beckett as Virgil.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Modernism is 100 years old?

Ron Silliman includes a link at the start of his blog to a recent Guardian article. The Silliman link is Modernism is 100 years old” and the Guardian article in question is “Enthusiasts mark centenary of modern poetry” by Mark Brown, arts correspondent. The article is enthusiastic about its related enthusiasts, but is it correct? I am surprised that such an eminent blog with Modernist credentials has not scrutinised the article. I am less surprised that the UK has muddled its history of poetics.

According to the article, on March 25th, 1909, a group of poets met at the Café Tour d’Eiffel, London, and these “fledgling imagists” (small i?) initiated Modernism. The suggestion made by Mark Brown is that this date saw a radical change in poetry, one that changed the “face of poetry for good.”

Hardly. The face of poetry in 1909 was still shrouded in Victorian fog. Yes, in the month of March, Flint, Storer and Hulme met. They were later joined by Pound, in April. But Modernism, as Imagism, hardly began here. The narrative, as told by the Guardian article, suggests a great meeting of minds and a new cosmos. Pound visited the café under the guidance of Florence Farr. She was, as David Moody observes in his biography of Pound, an actress and friend of Yeats. She was also a leading light in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (as was Yeats). A fair amount of murkiness hung over the meetings at the café, an ectoplasm that had little to do with visual Imagism. Reading the article, the usual impression is given that this birth was born from a unity of mind and purpose. Not so. In 1909, Hulme had created a philosophy of the Image: one that talked of an embodied poetics in disembodied terms. Exactly what Imagism is not. Pound, in 1909, was barely beyond The Spirit of Romance, fascinated with music and the image within the ear.

Also misleading is the picture of the Imagists in one café and the Vorticists in another. That would have required a time-machine, something even more radical than The Cantos. Some 5 years divide events in the Café Tour d’Eiffel and the Vienna Café.

Modernism and the Image erupted in 1912-13, in Ripostes, Lustra, and finally, as a living poetic form in Cantos I-III. The poetic tourism related in the Guardian has little to do with fact. The enthusiasts have come to the party too early, but that, I guess, is the nature of enthusiasm.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Answering Back, edited by Carol Ann Duffy.

In some ways, poetry is a reactive art. Bloom’s view (post-Enlightenment poets suffer from a belief that all has been said before and are inevitably bound up in a battle with the past) is probably an over-statement of the case. Yet, poets write in relation to a tradition as they understand it. At its worst, this produces narrow work with rich ideologies and a dogmatic tendency to squash all rivals jealously; and sycophantic work that inhabits the house of some predecessor. At its best, an awareness of the past creates rich work that lives through tension; and brings a re-evaluation of earlier writers and their creative homelands.

Answering Back, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, begins hopefully. It was suggested that the title should be “Answering”: an act of response. Duffy stuck with her title, however, feeling that poetic responses ought to be strong, contain a “glint” of defiance. She was right to stick with her view because it is what makes and unmakes this interesting volume.

There are 46 poets in Answering Back and the poets spoken to include:

A E Housman
Allen Ginsberg
Anna Akhmatova
Ben Jonson
Cesar Pavese
C P Cafavy
Charlotte Mew
Christina Rossetti
D H Lawrence
Dafydd Ap Gwilym
Dylan Thomas
Edna St Vincent Millay
Edward Thomas
Elizabeth Bishop
Emily Dickenson
Eugenio Montale
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Giocomo Leopardi
Jalaluddin Rumi
John Donne
Louis MacNeice
Lucille Clifton
Murial Rukeyser
Patrick Kavanagh
Philip Larkin
Rudyard Kipling
Sextus Propertius
Thomas Hardy
W B Yeats
W H Auden
W S Gilbert
Wallace Stevens
Walt Whitman
Walter de la Mare
William Carlos Williams
Yehuda Amichai

This is an eclectic collection of poets, suggesting that the selecting poets (mainly from the United Kingdom and Ireland) are not an insular “School of Quitetude”. Answering Back has scope. This vision, however, is not so noticeable in the poems chosen and the responses that they create.

Out of the many complex poems of Dylan Thomas, Nina Cassian decides to respond to “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” It is a short, heady piece on how the poetic lover is ignored by readers, which produces a simple, prosaic reflection and a dreadful couplet that Thomas would never have dreamed of: she injects a poem

“like a shot, an intravenous,
in the missing arm of Venus”.

Generally, answering back, in this volume, is a reply to content. It is not an engagement with a poet’s language…and rarely an involvement with the poet’s philosophy. The results are often flat and not as effective as the poems addressed, something that can be seen in Billy Collins' reply to W.H.Auden. A phrase such as "the mind/the freakiest dungeon in the castle" does not catch the implied terror of Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts". At times, however, the simple response to content can produce moving surprises, as in the juxtaposition of Ian MacMillan’s “The Green Wheelbarrow” and William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”. An objective masterpiece stands alongside a subjective poem full of emotional slither and slide. The effect is identical to that of walking through an art exhibition where disparate paintings have been chosen to suggest points of departure. The weakest examples of answering back come with poets who deal too pointedly with their ancestor, so U.A. Fanthorpe’s ridiculous attack on Walt Whitman:

"You reckless old drop-out, you
Inventor of abbatoirs, factory farms—it’s people like you
Who make beasts afraid. Just look a bit harder. Try thinking."

Answering back is a complex art. It requires a feeling for the whole voice that speaks. It should be a wrestling with an angel. And in that conflict, every muscle should be known, every feather felt, the pulse of blood and metre heard. Disliked or liked, answering a poem back is an intimate art. Enemies have to be known as comprehensively as friends. One of the weakest sections of this volume includes Carol Rumens and her put-down of Philip Larkin:

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you…"

This produces three quatrains of bad verse:

"Not everybody’s
Childhood sucked:
There are some kiddies
Not up-fucked. "

As examples of how to answer back (as an adult rather than a child), Duffy does include two incisive pairs of poems. Imtiaz Dharker has a complex conversation with Rumi. How could a modern poet not be caught by these lines?

your own myth, without complicated explanations.
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you. "

This is transformed into:

"I have strayed into unknown myths,
every shape a threat. "

And Michael Schmidt’s “Pangur Ban” answers “Pangur Ban” with an exploratory well-paced poem that paces thought and those echoes which appear across time:

"Prowl out of now and go down

Into time’s garden… "

Answering Back touches upon the ways in which poems can engage with one another. The results are not as “electrifying” as Duffy claims, yet the whole volume does offer an interesting insight into the poet’s craft. The work is well edited and arranged though there is some confusion in the Biographies with Transtromer listed as a contributer when he is one of the poets replied to. Answering Back raises interesting questions about response. Had it gone deeper it could have entered a resonant, evocative auditorium, one concerned with readership and reflection, criticism and creativity, and the ways in which poems bring forces into equilibrium and act as liberating forms.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Am My Names (T): (Jee Leong Koh)


(For JLK).

Should I worship at the altar
of the smooth pebble:
know sea by its polish:

and tides by life’s theory;
command the double-fish
to swim in one direction?

My name is Tension. I am an artist.

To celebrate his birthday, Jee Leong Koh, served a poetry reading prepared from his forthcoming book, Equal to the Earth. To hear the readings, visit his book blog. If you have only a little time, listen to the first reading and the opening poem, "Hungry Ghosts", the final poem in a sequence bearing that title. If you have more time, take a bottle along and listen to all three readings. You'll soon be drunk on poetry!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blurbing poetry.

In a previous post, I carped about the quality of blurbing, assuming that blurbs aspire to quality. Perhaps, I was unjustly hard, since I have discovered that blurbing these days, in the USA, has not yet absorbed the Obama effect of reasonable speech. Mistakenly, I believed that publishers accepted the recommendations of readers to promote sales. Now, I realise that blurbs are written to bestow the kiss of death. Here are some newly baptised books receiving the last rites:

"Staged as a fiction via the paratextual sleight of its introduction, [this book] chronicles and catalogues transformation as a way of evading and understanding bodies and selves. Readers might register the shuttlings of the book's interlocutors as playful linguistic performances of the animal transformations they devise for each other. "

"In these pages, the electric linguistic experiment meets a new urban, postnatural poetics, one in which poetry is not just a play of signs and seemings but also a prismatic investigation of our contemporary order."

"The recovery of the natural world, so central to her anti-generic, synergistic project, posits nothing less than overwriting the catastrophe of our nature/culture agon."

"[These] poems both court and cuckold subjectivity by unmasking its fundament of sex and hesitancy, the coil of doubt in its certitude."

"The work in this wondrous first major book by has a phenomenal - an excitatory - presence, the presence of action, not thing. This book is a matrix of polytemporal energy, a linguistic carnival, ribald and resounding."

Who needs books of poetry when the blurbs are so creative?

The Art of Reading. Sacrifice.

"The primordial relationship between writer and reader presents a wonderful paradox: in creating the role of the reader, the writer also decrees the writer's death, since in order that a text be finished the writer must withdraw, cease to exist... All writing depends on the generosity of the reader."

Alberto Manguel, The History of Reading, p.179,

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Please, Jericho Brown.

I wish poets and publishers didn’t feel the need to herald new poetry editions with bombastic recommendations. Of course, this is a sign of the Age. The public has to be told which brand of soup to buy: such decisions are presumed too difficult for the mass. But poetry? Does an art aimed at sensitive readers require an approach designed for the (allegedly) anaesthetised? Jericho’s Brown’s Please is announced by three powerful voices. Mark Doty’s recommendation is to the point and “live-wire” is a fitting phrase for the energy in Brown’s poetic lines. Less to the point are Hayes’ indulgent tribute which ends bathetically with “I could never say all I love about this book…” and Claudia Rankine’s mystical pronouncements, which sink into darkness. “Please continually repositions its readers inside the violence of the interruption, the psychic break.” She is knocked-out by the poet's “devastating genius”. (If only she had been hermetically silenced before writing her blurb and not managed to combine two clichés into a hysterical summation). Jericho’s Brown’s Please does not require this very American approach (but I suppose this is what you get when devoted friends write notes of recommendation). Please is thoughtfully put together. It is a finely produced book. It heralds itself beautifully, through skill and modest eloquence. The publishers (Western Michigan University) have assembled a handsome volume: an allusive cover, a resonant photo-page, a clear and attractive text. The author demonstrates a craft that is rich in tone and has clearly devoted time to arranging poems and considering the subtle relationships between parts and the whole.

Please, as a title, is perfect. The word suggests request and demand, prayer and conversation, plea, ease, and finally pleasure. Jericho’s Brown’s poems, by following musical connections, continually work with echoes from the title. Some of the strongest poems in the volume, such as “Lush Life”, “Crickets” and “Lion” are truly aware of pleasure’s shadow and how, like a cut, pain awakens the body into vital sensation.

Jericho, from the Hebrew, draws upon two senses, sight and smell. The city was bright as the moon and fragrant with herbs. The final poem in the volume, “Because My Name Is Jericho,” references the battle between Joshua and Jericho. It is a climax to a book which allows the author to say, with justification, “I am just as much a man/As Joshua”. But it isn’t just the final poem that plays with Jericho. The poetry develops through a sense of otherness, the moon, “Dark Side of the Planet”. The imagery of smell is inseparable from the poet’s sense of existence and survival: “One fist clenched/My brown bag as I sniffed for magnolia and made a deal with the dark.” (“Runaway”, P. p.58); “I smell liquor on your breath/Soon your arms will be too heavy to lift…” (“Your Body Made Heavy with Gin”, P. p.53). Unlike the metaphysical Donne, Jericho Brown doesn’t labour the connection between city and body, but implicit, within Please is the spiritual equation Jericho=city=body, and how the poet refuses to allow his body to fall, like the Biblical city, to blows of physical and mental violence. Please is a modern volume with an original voice. Yet this freshness is enriched by the author’s awareness of the past. “Prayer of the Backhanded” sings along to James Baldwin, linking musical strain to emotional strain. There are moments of jazz, stressed rhythms and falling cadences that echo Langston Hughes. And in the city-body linkage there is the troubled voodoo music of Essex Hemphill, though this is sung in a different key. In “Rights and Permissions”, Hemphill offers a bleak image of existence: his “warm seed” has nowhere to go. In “Family Portrait”, Brown offers a similar vision but within the context of love:

“My breath is also released
As I shiver onto my boyfriend’s back,
Then open my eyes to the faces
Of my children, faintly

Sketched in white swirls
On brown skin…"

(P. p.56).

Please is a volume that requires careful reading. I would have to disagree entirely with Melissa McEwan’s claim that “Some poems have to be read and then reread. But not these poems.” In her desire to free the poems from accusations of “difficulty”, she has done the volume an unintended disservice. Please is a complex musical composition and though some poems, such as “Lunch” and “I Have Just Picked Up a Man” are ironical, single-read poems, most of the poetry requires re-reading. Re-reading doesn’t imply a flaw in a poem: it is what a conscientious reader should wish to do, especially if the poem is pleasing, and (in the case of Please) desire to do! Please is a volume of poetry that bestows pleasure in relation to the time given to it, much like love, much like music. It isn’t a poetry of trumpets that stomps its way around the page…leave that to Joshua…rather a poetry of sentience written by a poet who knows how to modulate language and make the score on the page become music in the reader's mind.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Art of Reading. Implication.

"I only write for those who can read between the lines."

Andre Gide.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (7) Final.

Marechera’s introduction to the Amelia Sonnets (suggested by Flora Veit-Wild) contains this statement:

“Every act of love is a recapitulation of the whole history of human emotion.” (CM, p.167).

At a glance that suggests that love is a repeat (as in music). An individual act rehearses what has gone before. This is what Barthes senses in A Lover’s Discourse. Love is a repeat of certain tropes and a lover is at once bound to an individual series of emotions and a general series of recognitions: “I know that scene of language.” (ALD, p.4). If love binds the lover to the unique, it also binds him or her to a general history of love, factual as well as fictional. This double awareness is non-surprisingly double-edged. It raises the lover to a universal pattern of events (Leda and Zeus, Romeo and Juliet, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Cathy and Heathcliff) but also lowers the lover into a darker realm: many have been here before.

One of the problems with the Amelia Sonnets is that Marechera claims that they are different from the norm. They are “the record of a very tragic love affair”. (p.168). Tragic love affairs, however, are rather the norm…in real life…in virtual life. The tragic is the key of love in the “history of human emotion”. It isn’t the tragic that explains the unusual language of the Amelia Sonnets. In some ways, the matter might be helped if the reader knew something of the actual relationship behind these sonnets. So, Heine’s sonnets are rather self-willed, poetic poetry conjuring a walpurgisnacht that never really existed, except in the mind of Heine. They don’t seem to reflect any concerns of the Beloved or any shared despair. This desire for biography is a modern and rather debatable matter, however, for it isn’t really any part of the sonnet tradition. Little is known of Dante’s Beatrice. Michelangelo’s sonnets to Vittoria Colonna are not based on detailed facts. In fact, that is the point: she is the abstract Love of a gay poet. Abstraction makes her possible. Nothing is known of Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”— no age, name, locality, family, social status etc! The one aspect that marks off the Amelia Sonnets from history is their mixed-racial nature…but this is of no interest to Marechera, as he specifies in no uncertain terms.

Ultimately, the Amelia Sonnets, seem to be contradictory. They invert the sonnet tradition. Language is pushed into dark graveyards, yet the ghost that remains isn’t that terrifying.

In Sonnet VII, Amelia, the workings are on show.

Lines 1-2 take a Petrarchan conceit. Love is fire and ice. This is cast as:
“A band of near-molten metal tightens/Around my iceblock head.”
Lines 2-3 pick up a Shakespearean image of Love and Time:
“The clock ticking/Hurls loneliness’ searing arrows.”
The adjective “searing” develops the earlier hot metal image. The traditional burning arrows of Eros brand the poet. Something, then, of a development from the sonnet tradition.
Lines 3-5 compares what remains, “dust”, to radioactivity. A wholly modern image enters the poem.
Lines 5-8 work through an oxymoron:
“the bright/Nightmare of daylight.
Lines 8-10 offer a Homeric image of the Avenger’s Chariot, turning the poet/lover into the victim hauled behind the chariot. The lover becomes the victim of militarism, patriarchy, his own power.
And the closing lines, 10-14, focus on a Love-War:Venus-Mars union (a conceit of much Renaissance poetry) wherein the sexual act is stripped to warfare. The penis becomes a “Gatling" gun, semen turns into “white-hot bullets”. And Amelia, spectral, in “luminous” nightdress, pounds the poet’s “bared chest”. Memory leaves the poet shaking to the “rhythm” of his “sobs”, emasculated, yet more human.

As in Michelangelo, rape and rapture are fused in the poem. Marechera focuses on how the brutal past is inseparable from the tender present. (He brings, as he said, the horror of the townships to the act of making love such that love becomes an attack on war and history). But the poem does not have what Susanne Langer termed “virtual memory”. The Poem, for all its clever ideas, doesn’t really image the darkness of the Nigredo, the Dark Night of the Soul, the alchemical battlefield of Death created by Love. In Sonnet VII, as in the whole sequence, there are moments of brilliance, yet Marechera does not really have the language to destroy the scenes of language (if that is possible) and create an antidote to the tradition of love poetry. Ultimately, the “recapitulation” that he seeks is not musical, but therapeutic, a healing voice: recapitulation as an encounter with the past such that healing takes place.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (6).

At the close of his 1984 interview with Flora Veit-Wild, Marechera reflects on his image of women and the ambiguity of the Amelia Sonnets. His exact remarks are:

“This is also what silences me sometimes, usually when I feel that I love somebody. I then remember all the things that I have been brought up with. This is also the reason why some of the poems are about Amelia are ambiguous. In one poem I treat her as if she is dead, in another as if she is a ghost …as a prostitute…[.]” (p.217).

This is what strikes so oddly in the sonnets. Traditionally, the Beloved is perfect. She is immaculate and unitary. She is the One. She is an integral integer. There can be no diversion from a single point-of-view when viewing her. Psychologically, she is the whole, often the Platonic Form, before the fragmented mind of the poet. She is the organising factor. Typically, within his art, Marechera’s Amelia is uneven, inseparable from the discontinuities within the poet. Sonnet IV and VIII are polar opposites. “Primal Vision” unveils Amelia as a succubus. She fornicates with angels in Heaven. The poet, adopting Plath’s vampiric language in Ariel, bares his dripping fangs” at the nightmare. “Cemetery of Mind” laments that the angelic Amelia has died rather than “diseased city whores”. Once more, the language of Plath enters, her “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” is echoed in “Silence wrapped in the bright human skin lampshade”.

There is a wish within the Amelia Sonnets to create a shifting reality. As Marechera allows the fragmentation of the Beloved to exist, a feeling of posturing and artifice enters the sonnet sequence. Sonnet V, “Th’Anniversary”, acknowledges this by referring to Donne’s poem and his love of love and the language of love. Marechera’s sonnet, however, debunks any thoughts of love beyond the grave except as a vile dance of death:

We dined on worms as fat as pickhandles
And she danced on my arm as I led her onto the dance floor;

And in “The Visitor”, Marechera compares the poet-lover to Pygmalion whose unnatural desire brought dead matter to life— who abandoned a real prostituted world for one of unreal idealism. Creativity is a willed act: it is a “terrible pact”, as Marechera says, a Faustian act of denial.

The Amelia Sonnets are interesting, experimental works, but ultimately they lack expressiveness. To judge them in terms of coherence is a mistake. They stand against coherence. They do not achieve a language, however, that convinces a reader of their emotional integrity.